USA 2014Video Coverage

Aaron Walz: Bringing the Focus to Audio | Casual Connect Video

August 20, 2014 — by Gamesauce Staff


Aaron Walz has known since he was 10 years old what he wanted to do with his life. “I’ve been into music and games my whole life,” he says. It’s no surprise then that he has embedded himself deeply in the audio sector of the gaming industry. With his experience, he was able to provide some tips during Casual Connect USA 2014: “Sometimes, limitations can help you compose things you otherwise wouldn’t.”


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Aaron Walz, Founder, Walz Music and Sound

Having a unique perspective due to being long-time game player and classical musician with a theory-based music degree, Walz took things a step further in 2007 by creating Walz Music and Sound. He lists his creativity and the fact he is easy to work with as business assets and notes that his time as an HR director well-prepared him for running a business. “I know what developers want, and can create things that gamers want to hear, while staying interesting and cutting edge.”

In the Workplace

When Walz was first getting Walz Music and Sound on its feet, there were several things he had to adjust to. First and foremost was shifting away from the “paycheck mentality” and learn to budget. He also had to buckle down and improve his sound design skills. Most importantly, he had to learn to market himself and charge what he was worth.  “I had to learn to have faith, not give up, believe in myself,” he says. “The biggest obstacle was me limiting myself!”

Now that Walz Music and Sound is up and running, Walz can focus on the work of running a business and making music and sound. His schedule is varied, and he finds himself working both in-house and at home. His responsibilities include sound creation, composition, and “lots of communication” — as well as the typical business-related tasks.

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Now that Walz Music and Sound is up and running, Walz can focus on the work of running a business and making music and sound.

He works with all sorts of clients, most notably Kabam and John Romero (which Walz considers a couple of his biggest accomplishments), and his projects can vary greatly. He has put together a game in a week, while another game may take a year. One day can include a combination of music, voice over recording and editing, design sound for a marketing video or cutscene, and creating custom sounds. The technical specs of the game’s platform must also be taken into consideration when putting a game together. Music length and smooth looping are just a couple of the things that need to be considered.

Collaboration between the different game teams is also important to Walz, who says that a better game is made with more collaboration. “Even better is if I get to do integration and implementation,” he says. “At the very least, you should always be able to test sound in a game and have access to all art assets and a build.”

While he can take on an excessive amount of work at crunch time, Walz prefers to pace himself in his work. “Through the years, I’ve learned to stay realistic with my daily and weekly goals, focused and productive,” he says. “Some work is tiring emotionally, and some is tiring mentally. In fact, even physically. You have to be careful not to tire your ears out and work through that, or things don’t sound good.”

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“Through the years, I’ve learned to stay realistic with my daily and weekly goals, focused and productive.”

Building Alliances and Raising Awareness

One of the things Walz laments about the audio sector is the lack of recognition those in the sector receive relative to the rest of the gaming industry. “Sound is a huge part of the experience in almost any good game,” he says, noting that composers and sound designers should always be credited both online and in-game. He’d also like to see more budget designated for audio and more time and thought devoted towards it.

In an effort to combat these issues, Walz and others in the audio sector have come together to form the Game Audio Alliance. Along with tackling compensation and recognition issues, the Game Audio Alliance hopes to work toward audio standardization and increased audio quality in the game sector as well.

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In an effort to combat the issues of audio in the industry, Walz and others in the audio sector have come together to form the Game Audio Alliance.

The group met and came together at a Casual Connect conference years ago. “We decided there were not a lot of big companies for audio, and we had a unique vision and wanted to all work together,” Walz says. “We strive to build a sense of community and connectedness among casual/social/mobile audio folks. This helps us all remember that aside from competing, we can come together to make sure audio is highly valued and of excellent quality.”

The group has published articles and materials advancing their goals and Walz answers questions behind the scenes all year long to encourage those starting out in the sector. Currently, the group also plans to create a more formal association for members to join and receive special perks.

Things Still to Do

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Whenever he has free time, Walz hones his tennis and bowling skills.

Walz looks forward to the audio process becoming more streamlined in the future, with more tools for game audio creation and integration available to audio developers. “Hopefully, and probably, we will raise the quality of the bit rates and get out of this 128k world in mobile, especially,” he says. “I’m really excited about that!”

He’d also like to create his own game app at some point, saying that he has some great ideas for some original games. He’d also love to have his music performed by an orchestra someday — and possibly conduct — as well as do the same with choral music, as he’s quite familiar with the genre.

In the meantime though, whenever he has free time, he hones his tennis and bowling skills — and wins gold medals as a part of choral group Golden Gate Men’s Chorus, which just competed in the World Choir Games and came home with two gold medals and a silver medal.

BusinessDevelopmentExclusive InterviewsIndustryOnline

Holly Liu’s Insights From the Kabam Experience and the Evolving Game Market

July 22, 2014 — by Industry Contributions


Holly Liu is the chief of staff and culture at Kabam, overseeing HR and driving Kabam’s vision, mission, and values for its 800 employees around the globe. Previously, she was VP of people ops and user experience and led design for Kabam’s very successful game, Kingdoms of Camelot. Here she discusses her experiences with Kabam and her insights into the evolving game industry.

Holly Liu - Kabam (2)

Entering the Game Industry

I entered the game industry because the free-to-play business model enabled me to connect directly with players. Before I started in the game industry, I had spent my time designing products that were based around the advertising business model. I had never been in the gaming industry before, so I’m not sure if I had any expectations. However, once I became involved in the industry, what I did learn was the fundamental difference between product design and game design. Product design can be thought of as blocks or “features” that can be stacked next to each other – not necessarily affecting one another; however, game design needs to be thought of as co-centric loops and a whole eco-system, where moving one piece will affect another, and expanding the game isn’t just “turning on features.”

The Creation of Kabam

Kabam was founded in 2006 initially as watercooler-inc, focused on things that people would talk about at work around the water cooler. We initially created the largest TV and sports fan communities on Facebook, which was so popular that when ABC wanted to distribute video, they called us rather than Facebook. That was the height of our fan communities. However, when the 2008 mortgage crisis hit, it adversely impacted us because our communities and business model were based on advertising revenue. We spent some time talking about what we should do given the climate for our particular business model. The first thing we decided was to stay in the game. We looked at three things: market opportunity, team capabilities, and passion points. First, we had a passion for games, especially our CEO, who loved PC-strategy-based games. Secondly, our team had over 60 years of cumulative experience creating and launching Facebook applications. And finally, we were realizing that Facebook games, coupled with the free-to-play business model, were growing during these trying times. That was what really our start into gaming.

What started as watercooler-inc turned into the successful game company Kabam.
What started as watercooler-inc turned into the successful game company Kabam.

Our CEO was frustrated with the lack of depth of the current Facebook games and wanted to bring a deeper game to the Facebook audience. So we started building the first strategy-based game for Facebook using the ever popular lore of Camelot. We used a lot of community building strategies we had learned from our fan communities to connect people within alliances. Today, our Kingdoms of Camelot franchise has grossed over $250 million dollars in revenue and was the top grossing application in 2012 in the iOS store. We have connected millions of players who have made lifelong friendships, connections, and marriages.

Lessons From Kingdoms of Camelot and Kabam

Through this experience, I learned that entrepreneurship is a full contact sport. Be ready to take everything you have learned – not only what you learned in books at school, but also on the playground and at family dinners, and bring it to the table. You are in the ring. The good thing is you don’t have to do it alone. Make sure you have the right team with whom you can do the best work of your life. With the right team, you can make sure you are getting the right product out the door, and you will be able to raise capital to make this happen. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In the beginning, my role was to help design a game that was accessible for the Facebook audience. While we knew there were gamers on Facebook, we also knew that a lot of people with no gaming experience would be exposed to Kingdoms of Camelot. Therefore, I spent a lot of time on the first time experience, as well as encouraging the player to get help from and engage friends. I was really inspired by some of the Camelot lore we grew up with and by the idea of transporting the player back in time to the medieval age where there were kings, lords, ladies, princes, and princesses. The concept was influenced by many of the Asian PC-strategy based games as well as a little from Sid Meier’s Civ. The game certainly exceeded our expectations not only on monetizaton but also with the deep connections between players. Personally, what I most enjoy seeing are the connections and how this game has changed people’s lives. The interesting thing is we are changing the world one connection and one player at a time – and I’m not sure how you can change the world without changing people first.

Now as the chief of staff and culture, I am responsible for overseeing HR, internal communications, and knowledge sharing (as a subset of internal communications). Currently, my day will include various meetings on how we can increase knowledge sharing, syncing up with people, and check-ins with various employees. Larger scale projects involve defining the cultural vision, setting up the internal communications framework and executing upon it, and finally, knowledge-sharing projects and milestones. My day-to-day activities all support these larger initiatives.

My day will include various meetings on how we can increase knowledge sharing, syncing up with people, and check-ins with various employees.

The Evolving Game Industry

There have been three large shifts for the game industry in recent years. The first has been platform changes. With the astronomical growth of the smartphone, we have seen people shift some of their gaming time to the mobile phone. In the West in particular, we have seen this impact the portable gaming consoles. Also, with the accessibility of the mobile phone, the gaming audience has widened past traditional gamers who are well-versed with the controller, out of the living room and into people’s pockets. This means a whole list of issues on how to get distribution on this platform and whether there is a first mover advantage. Currently for iOS and Android, the platform is moving much closer to a retail store where shelf space is limited, given that there is only so much content that can be featured on a limited shelf space.

We have seen the model move from a consumer goods business model to a service-based micro-transaction model.

The second shift has been around the business model, particularly in the West. We have seen the model move from a consumer goods business model to a service-based micro-transaction model. Or in the mobile phone context: paid apps vs. in-app purchases. In 2012, Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North was the #1 Top Grossing app across the iOS store, beating out Facebook, Pandora, Yelp, as well as any other paid app. This really ushered in a new viable business model, as it was one of the first times an in-app purchase app had beat out paid apps for the Top Grossing spot on the iOS store. The implications of this shift have radically transformed how we think about game making. Rather than thinking about a game like a movie, we need to think of a game as a TV show. In movies, as in traditional gaming, the first week is crucial to how well the movie will do. Doing well in the first weekend is the best indicator to how the movie will do over its lifetime. For a TV show, the pilot is the beta and a lot of tweaking can happen along the way. Also, the revenue curves are not determined by the first night the show is aired. Therefore, with free-to-play gaming, we think a lot about how the game is created in association with players. We value highly what players do, so we have spent quite some time looking into player behavior. There are now things that we can quantify and see, whereas before, there could have been more of a religious debate. For example, in a paid app world, there probably is a large discussion around something that is fun. For us, we can see the effects of fun with our retention rates. Additionally, the game does not stop when it is launched – in fact, that is only the beginning.

The Games-as-a-Service mindset and business model has been around for more than a decade in many Asian countries and is quite sophisticated in how they think of features and how they update the game.

The third shift is really due to the shift in the business model. It is more of a cultural and mindset shift to “games-as-a-service,” which is really a shift for the game industry in the West. This mindset and business model has been around for more than a decade in many Asian countries and is quite sophisticated in how they think of features and how they update the game. For some Asian games, there is a dedicated 24-hour hotline for VIP customers in their games. For free-to-play gamers, quality does not necessarily mean fidelity of art and graphics, it means consistent uptime, new content, and ultimately fun (or else they wouldn’t come back). Now with Games-as-a-service, when we design the game, we tend to think about how we will be able to extend the game. Much like when television writers write a story arc, they think of ways the story can be extended. We think of expansion packs and big feature releases similar to television seasons while tournaments, special items, smaller features, and events are similar to television episodes.

Challenges in the Changing Games Landscape

All game makers are facing two major challenges in this changing landscape. The first is distribution, particularly on the mobile device. On the web, folks just bought traffic or used SEO to drive traffic to their website, but now with the mobile phone (particularly for native mobile apps) it’s pretty difficult to repeat the same thing. The price of performance marketing has increased, driving many game developers either to partner or to focus on their business relationships with Apple or Google. The other challenge has been the ability to keep fidelity high while moving toward a Games-as-a-service model. Many game makers are coming from AAA console game development where a large amount of graphics and visual stunning art is what really helped increase revenue for the game. Console games were also built knowing that you had the players’ full attention – it was on the TV and there were controllers, so the games were more cinematic. But with the era of mobile, most players are not familiar with controllers. The game needs to be snack-able (i.e. you can be interrupted and it’s okay), easy to start and stop, and have a lesser amount of graphics that need to be downloaded.

All game makers are facing two major challenges in this changing landscape.

Coming Innovations and How They Affect the Game Industry

I am pretty excited about wearable technology such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift, and the ushering of new gestures while maintaining an immersive experience. I’m hoping that the gestures will be more natural, which will do away with the alienation of the controller and widen the immersive experience of high-quality gaming. I’m also very excited about streaming and getting back into people’s living rooms. It is amazing that some people have canceled cable TV for streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix. And now with Google and AppleTV, you can fling a lot of content onto your TV with minimal effort, and latency fairly decently.

Coming Next From Kabam

Kabam is currently concentrating on making the next generation games. We have some pretty exciting games under development including some original IP as well as some Hollywood licensed IP, such as Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and Mad Max. Kabam is also focused on building our platform by partnering with third party game developers not just to publish their games, but also to help localize and provide service operations to their games. And, this is all in addition to changing the world! 😉

 Be sure to check out Holly Liu’s session on harnessing the power of passion in your work during Casual Connect USA!

Asia 2014Video Coverage

Weiwei Geng and Working With Hit Games | Casual Connect Video

June 10, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton


“We all know for games, we need new content to keep our players entertained, but the key thing here is not just to push out content, but to figure out the right cadence of content releases,” Weiwei Geng said during Casual Connect Asia 2014. “If you do it too soon, too fast, your players will actually get burned out, but if you actually do it too slow and too late, your players get bored and they might quit playing the game.”


Kabam Weiwei Geng headshot
Weiwei Geng, Executive Producer, Kabam

Weiwei Geng, the executive producer at Kabam, believes the games industry is the perfect spot for art, science, engineering, interaction design, and music to come together as a true multidisciplinary industry. He joined the industry just as social games were taking off on Facebook. He started off in a friend’s company, helping them to set up their North American operation. What he enjoys most about being a part of the video games industry is that he gets to work with talented people all the time and that the platforms he works on allow him to interact directly with their players.

Making A Hit

At Kabam, Geng is leading The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth and Kingdoms of Camelot franchises. He joined Kabam in 2012 just as they were beginning their mobile effort. His previous experience in understanding the free-to-play business, including design, live-ops, marketing, and customer service was a tremendous benefit; he says, “I couldn’t have done my current job without it.”

Kingdoms of Middle Earth
The successful launch of The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth for mobile and ramping it up to quickly shoot up the top grossing chart is what Geng considers the proudest moment of his career.

The successful launch of The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth for mobile and ramping it up to quickly shoot up the top grossing chart is what Geng considers the proudest moment of his career. He believes, “A true dedication of the team and the seamless teamwork led to this moment.”

Geng’s spare time activities include sports, music, and spending time with his family. And don’t forget gaming! Currently, he is playing Boom Beach, which he calls elegant, simple, and engaging: a step up from Clash of Clans. He prefers playing on iOS because of the indie community Apple is trying to foster on the platform.

His intense focus on mobile games had him playing on a high speed train going 350 kilometers per hour. He says, “Due to the high speed of the train, my cell phone had to keep switching to new station towers for reception. It was quite an experience!”

Global Outlook

Geng sees globalization as the next important trend in mobile free-to-play. He notes that Asia is known for being advanced in the free-to-play business. He claims, “With the growing market in the West and global hit titles such as Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, a merge in understanding free-to-play will happen on the global level. Companies and talent will try to leverage the learnings from all markets, and those that can take advantage of these key learnings will become valuable.”


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Moving with the Latest Pendulum Swing: Right Before Our Eyes, Another Gaming Industry Transformation

April 4, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska


Nick ThomasNick Thomas, CEO and Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., is a video games industry veteran and thought leader with 10+ years of proven executive leadership results with a focus on developing strategic industry partnerships, innovating creative outsourcing solutions and managing talented teams that contribute to more than 100 games annually from nearly all major publishers and developers, as well as independent developers. He discusses the transformation occurring in the industry in this article.

It’s happening again, right before our eyes; we’re in the midst of yet another era of redefinition and reinvention in the ever-evolving gaming industry. While the landscape is changing dramatically, history shows us that something new and good will invariably emerge. After all, (and despite many attempts), you cannot own or control creativity, or predict the future of gaming.

We at SomaTone are ten years deep as a leading provider of creative content for mobile, social, and casual games, working at the forefront of gaming over the last decade’s explosive growth. Having produced audio content on hundreds of games for many of the top publishers as well as for the indies, our vantage point gives us a sweeping perspective across the landscape of the games industry– from AAA console games, to MMO’s, to Social/Mobile, to Casual, and beyond.

We’re seeing the cyclical pendulum swing of innovation, homogenization, and reinvention continuing to keep the publishers of gaming content guessing as the smaller, faster, and more creative start-ups are yet again redefining the gaming industry.

Creative comrades in the face of an ever-changing industry
Creative comrades in the face of an ever-changing industry, SomaTone’s Nick Thomas with Tap4Fun CEO Kevin Yang at GDC 2014

The Ripple Effects of Converting Players into Users in Mobile Gaming

Casual games continue to go through a familiar pattern, and we are currently emerging from a decline of the smaller “Mom and Pop” game developers, who have been squeezed out by the realities of mobile publishing and the dominance of Free-to-Play (F2P) games. This economic model has sought to systematically convert game “users” into a currency that has been hoarded, sold, and traded in an effort to control access to “game players.”

As a consequence, the industry was stratified into large game publishers–who controlled the access to “users” and thus the majority of the market–and new start-ups and Indies, who were either being gobbled up by these same publishers, or self-publishing and hoping for a Flappy Bird-style anomalous hit.

The middle-class of game development–studios of 20-50 working on games that were sold via standard pay-to-play standards with supportive publishing partners–has suffered. With limited access to users, who are carefully controlled by game publishers, it was nearly impossible for mid-sized independent game developers to make and sell their own games and support their teams. The result was a polarized and stratified industry in which a small fraction of game publishers own the vast majority of market, making it extremely difficult for small game developers to independently make and sell their games without yielding to the requirements of the publishers, who will own the IP, take the lion’s share of the revenue, with no clear obligation to bring “users” to their game.

“Every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself.”

Now while all publisher models attempt to control access and distribution to customers (this is in fact what publishers are supposed to do), there is a dramatic new variable at play, with the F2P economy. This “race to the bottom” business model, which has led to disruptive game-play mechanics designed to extract fees from “users”, in their efforts to enjoy a fully featured game-play experience and be “players”, is highly dependent on publishers’ access to users, and their ability to monetize these users. Those “old school” game designers, who sought to develop great games, that offered fully featured immersive game-play experiences at the outrageously expensive price of $.99, never stood a chance against “free” games, which are developed by game publishers and promoted to their “users”, requiring players to pay for the features included in a 1-dollar competing title.

This Latest Cycle Will Induce a Painful Rebirth

This cycle of innovation, homogenization and reinvention is not a new trend. We have seen this same cycle in gaming in the past, with Big Fish Games‘ consolidation of the PC Downloadable market and subsequently, Zynga‘s dominance of browser-based Facebook, and in both cases, there was a painful rebirth of the industry. Those fastest to adapt to the new ecosystems survived, and those who could not evolve, died away.

However, it is also true that every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself. Just after Big Fish unequivocally took control of PC downloadable, Facebook came along and completely disrupted their reign. A few short years later, the kings of Facebook (Zynga, Playdom, Wooga) have been dethroned, only to be replaced by the current leaders of the mobile industry. With each successive attempt to control and “own” the industry, new life has begun.

“You cannot control game players or ‘own’ creativity. A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming.”

This reminds me of Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. In this case, creativity finds a way, and despite the attempts of the current reign of publishers to own and control this inherently creative marketplace, they are discovering, just as all others before them have, that you cannot control game players or “own” creativity.

A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming. One in which, and Kabam, or perhaps even the Apple Store and Google Play store, will soon find themselves trying to catch up, and wondering what happened as the world they felt so sure of has shifted beneath their feet.

“Mom and Pop” developers, take heart. The pendulum swings both ways. And from our vantage point, which reaches from the largest publishers to the smallest indies, the playing field is leveling.

2014 will be a year of reorganization and consolidation, as the bubble of Mobile/Social games refocuses its efforts, and quality will retake its place as the leading factor in a company’s success, rather than simply a publisher’s control of access to users. And developing innovative and high-quality games has always been what the “Mom and Pop” game studios have done best and are continuing to do.

Look forward to the next installment of this series next month, a case study on Zynga’s Puzzle Charms!


Europe 2014Video Coverage

Teut Weidemann: Understanding Why Equals Win | Casual Connect Video

February 25, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton


Teut Weidemann believe he has proof that the future of the game industry will show an even larger trend toward tablets and mobile. “Tablet will eat into notebook, PC and console market share while Smartphones eat into handheld market share. The game industry needs to adapt fast.”


Teut Weidemann

25 years ago Teut Weidemann decided to turn his gaming hobby into a career. He insists he’s still having fun with his work, saying, “That’s not too bad, is it?” When thinking back , the time in Weidemann’s career that brought him the most satisfaction was in 2000 when a publisher wanted to buy not just his product development, but the entire company. At the time, they had proven they could develop high-end PC games, and they pitched only online games, the right track to be fit for the future. This was before Facebook or free-to-play. The company’s gleaming potential led to the buyout offer.

Currently, he is consulting for Ubisoft‘s online games. He enjoys the philosophy of Ubisoft, where mistakes are seen as an opportunity to learn rather than a reason to be fired, something he found a pleasant surprise. “When mistakes and the learning process are a natural part of the company, you can be much bolder, more daring, and gutsy with what you do,” Weidemann said. “And, as direct as I am, I do this day by day.”

Free-to-Play: A Double-Edged Sword

Weidemann consults on all free-to-play Ubisoft games. He has extensive input during the creation process in the areas of online mechanics and monetization. His focus on online games since 1997 and his previous experiences with Bigpoint and Nadirim (Kabam) have assisted his present role. A deep understanding of why online games work so well, as well as playing them daily himself, is key to succeeding in his work.

Teut Presenting
A deep understanding of why online games work so well, as well as playing them daily himself, is key to succeeding in his work.

Free-to-play is something Weidemann has strong opinions about. He loves that it allows players to enjoy a game and deeply test it before committing to it. On the other hand, he hates companies who use the F2P business model, but put monetization over game play. He insists, “Those companies will fail in the long run and vanish, luckily!”

Gaming is Required

Weidemann tell us that in his career, it is essential to own all game platforms and to learn from their games and systems, emphasizing that he cannot afford to miss one. He owns both the PS4 and Xbox One, and so far prefers the PS4 because he likes their simple interface, digital store, and the Japanese games such as Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs) that Sony always publishes. His favorite platforms to play on are PC and iPad: the PC because it offers the largest variety of online games, and iPad because he can play in locations other than his desk. These days he is playing World of Tanks and Ni No Kuni, saying it is a wonderful JRPG with tactical combat and art by the Ghibli Studio.


Kabam Releases an Expansion Pack for The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth

December 13, 2013 — by Catherine Quinton


All Lord of the Rings fans will remember that the movie, The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey, set a new record of $84.5 in box office revenue when it opened. It was the inspiration for Kabam’s game, The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth, which allowed players to immerse themselves in the world of Middle-earth. This game has attracted millions of players worldwide, who are occupied daily with building kingdoms and forming alliances with other players as they strategize to defend their kingdom. The characters in the game include favorites from The Hobbit movie, including Gandalf, Bilbo, Legolas and Tauriel.

SmaugThe Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth met with outstanding success, with this free-to-play game earning nearly $100 million in in-game transactions during its first year. Every day, more than 4 million battles are waged. More than a million alliances have been created and 16 million cities have been built, as players continue their fascination with The Lord of the Rings culture and characters.

Now, as the second movie, The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug, is released December 13, Kabam has also released an expansion pack for its game. The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug Expansion Pack features the evil dragon Smaug, ready to wage war against all. To face the challenge of Smaug, players must earn new armor and weapons to equip their armies for the battle. Defeating Smaug will earn players a name in the history of Middle-earth.

The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth can be downloaded for free from the App Store and on Google Play.

Video Coverage

Haden Blackman of Kabam on moving from ‘Games as products’ to ‘Games as services’

November 14, 2012 — by Clelia Rivera


Haden Blackman has many accomplishments to his name. He is an award-winning writer and producer with a long list of stories. He was the Co-president and CCO of Fearless Studios after spending some time at LucasArts, where he led the development of The Force Unleashed—an award-winning and best-selling game. Now as General Manager at Kabam, he helps bring many more games to life.

The Game Tells the Story

Gamesauce: What made you interested in the video game industry?

Haden: I grew up playing games, but also reading and writing. I was always fascinated by the ways in which games could tell stories – and allow players to create their own stories. I also became hooked on the dynamics of competitive and cooperative play very early on.

GS: How have your past career experiences helped you at Kabam?

The most successful developers are nimble, adaptable, and forward-thinking.

I spent thirteen years working at a “traditional” game developer, and saw a number of really dramatic transitions — from 2D to 3D, PC to console, small teams to large teams, original IP to licensed IP, and more. All this taught me that the industry is extremely fluid; there is no status quo, and change occurs at an ever-increasing pace. The most successful developers are nimble, adaptable, and forward-thinking.

GS: What strategies does Kabam use to create successful games?

Dozens! Creatively, we’ve developed a wide range of worlds, from the fantasy settings of Kingdoms of Camelot and Dragons of Atlantis, to the sci-fi horror setting of Thirst of Night, to the era of classic mobsters in The Godfather: Five Families. We rely on the right combination of data and inspiration to make design and content decisions. We’re not afraid to try something new, even if it goes against conventional wisdom. We study the results and learn from them. In terms of technology, we’re developing for multiple platforms and have brought one of our biggest franchises to mobile with Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North.  Since mid-April, it’s been in the top three grossing iOS apps, and #1 for a third of that time.  From a design standpoint, we are very focused on social features, such as alliances, that allow the community to self-organize, as well as providing players with a steady stream of both challenge and choice. And we embrace the attitude that a game is never done. Our games evolve continuously post-launch as we strive to make the experiences more intriguing, more immersive and more fun for our players.

Suddenly, Everything Changed

GS: What new technology has influenced the industry the most?

I think there’s an argument for everything from 3D video cards to mobile devices, but for me personally, everything changed as soon as I could connect with other players over a network. Suddenly, you had all these new models available – it wasn’t just about head-to-head with your buddy on the couch. In a few short years, we went from LAN parties with Quake and Starcraft to team-based competitive play in Counter-Strike, a DM creating adventures for co-op parties in Neverwinter Nights, and even huge communities coming together to build entire online cities in Star Wars Galaxies. Working through all that gave me a huge appreciation for the value that other players bring to the experience.

GS: Why do you think social and casual games became so popular?

People crave playing games – we love solving puzzles and we love overcoming challenges.

People crave playing games – we love solving puzzles and we love overcoming challenges. And we crave social interaction; it’s hard-wired into most of us. So, I think we love experiences that can combine those two things, especially in ways that recognize that we are now always connected to others – either through a mobile device or our browsers – but have a finite amount of time.

But Fundamentals Stay the Same

GS: How has game development evolved?

The tech, tools, processes, even team structures are dramatically different. And the new financial models and platforms have obviously changed things significantly. However, I believe that a lot of the fundamentals are still the same. You still need to provide a compelling experience. Execution is still at least 80 percent of the equation. And being successful still comes down to having the right people – people who are passionate, tenacious, honest, and talented.

GS: What is a common mistake developers make when creating a game for the current market?

The biggest mistake is forgetting the players. I think it’s easy to get so caught up in the new monetization models or platforms and forget that there are players at the other end of the experience who are giving you their time and money. Developers need to understand that it’s a trade, and we need to always make it a fair trade. What are you giving back to the players in exchange for their time and money?

GS: Which current game is a good example of the changing trends?

I think that Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North is a good example of a game that creates deeper social experiences on mobile. Previously, there was this belief that mobile platforms could only support short-session gameplay or games that didn’t have relatively deep end-games. Battle for the North proves that there is sustained interest in an immersive strategy game over time on mobile.

GS: What advice can you give developers working on service games?

Don’t forget that launching the game is the easy part. Once a game is live, you have to work harder today than you did yesterday to keep your players delighted and engaged and to attract new players. And be sure to balance adding new content and features with working on stability and polish.

Fast Forward

GS: What do you predict for the future of the video game industry?

The industry will evolve even more quickly than anyone expects. In twelve months, we’ll be discussing new monetization models, game archetypes, and platforms that we haven’t even considered yet.  Don’t forget, three years ago the iPad didn’t exist.

GS: What are Kabam’s plans for the future?

Growth!  Kabam will continue to support our existing games and franchises while also developing a number of new titles and moving into new genres, both in terms of gameplay and content. And we’ll continue to expand on mobile and other platforms.